Passport mishap: one French wedding and a panic

I misplace the priceless document the day before my flight to attend a wedding in France, resulting in nerve-racking days and a hit to my wallet. And I’m one of the lucky ones

The passport processing office in Balbriggan, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The passport processing office in Balbriggan, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Tue, Jun 24, 2014, 01:00

The woman behind the glass is more adept at avoiding eye contact than a Dublin City Council clamper.

“You’re not leaving the country today,” she says, eyes fixed on computer. “There’s nothing we can do. The earliest you’re looking at is next Wednesday.”

“No. The wedding is this Saturday and I’m a bridesmaid.”

Passport missing the night before the flight you really weren’t meant to miss. Sound familiar? One sleepless night and a ransacked apartment later, it’s 8.45am and I’m in the queue outside the passport office on Dublin’s Molesworth Street.

Suitcase in tow, I am under the impression that I stand a chance of making the 1pm flight to Bordeaux. What a laugh.

But a spark of hope flickers early on. At reception, a sympathetic woman tells me to come back with a ticked-off checklist: completed application form, birth cert, photographs signed by a garda. After a taxi dash around Dublin (€25 for a copy of birth cert ready in 10 minutes from Joyce House on Lombard Street East), I’m back. And it’s only 11am. Hold the doors, Aer Lingus.

Except it doesn’t work that way. Turns out a wedding is not an emergency, since it is (usually) neither unexpected, unpredictable nor a personal tragedy. And the fact that I have no picture ID – having been the victim of a handbag theft – is a real conversation killer.

 

Hopeless and powerless

So here I stand, hopeless and powerless at the counter, being asked, “When was the wedding booked?” And “why didn’t you check earlier if the passport was in its usual place?”

Finally, a supervisor agrees to speak to me in a private booth. After some more frantic excavation at home, I return to him with the wedding invitation and the only official ID I have, a relic of a 2009 stint as an intern. With the handover of €150 (the cost for a passport in less than five days) I’m “in the system” and assured, with a smile, that I will make it to the wedding.

Meanwhile, a mother is sounding off about the non-arrival of her toddler’s passport, needed for a holiday to Florida in three weeks. And a man is explaining that his cousin in England has lost track of hers on the online tracking system. No, she has no urgent travel plans. It’s just in case, you know?

By now, my flight has left for sunny France. Another takes off the next morning with half my family on board, while I’m gearing up for a day in the waiting room, with only my suitcase for company.

Much later, I realise I have actually been lucky: lucky it didn’t happen two years ago, when there were queues around the Molesworth Street block, because everyone had to present themselves there for a passport. Lucky it wasn’t a day later, when the office was closed for Good Friday. Lucky that people were sympathetic.

 

Transformed service

“We do want to make the life of the passport holder easier, but we also really want people to think about it before the last second,” says Joseph Nugent, director of the Passport Service, which produced more than 630,000 passports last year (12,000 a week).

And they are trying. The introduction of the appointment service in 2012 for those travelling at short notice (three to 10 working days) has transformed the service in terms of efficiency, cost and comfort, while the passport express service means you never have to set foot in the office.

At the same time, the successful rapid renewal pilot scheme, which facilitates one-day passport renewals – repeat: renewals, not lost or stolen passports – may become a permanent fixture.

But the 450 full-time and temporary staff in Dublin, Cork and London are well aware of the frustration that surrounds the system. Nugent says this is because the process is often misunderstood.

Firstly, it’s about numbers. They can predict their busiest day of the year: it’s the Wednesday after the May bank holiday. This year, Black Wednesday produced a record 6,841 applications.

“We have huge sympathy for people who urgently need a passport, but we can’t prioritise one person over nearly 7,000 others,” says Nugent.

The opening of the Balbriggan processing facility relieved some of the burden. But staff there have no direct customer contact, so you cannot swing by on your way to the airport to collect the passport.

The problem is not the actual printing; a passport takes just 90 seconds to print, including the laser engraving of a biometric chip. The problem is security.

“We just need to be really sure of who you are,” says Nugent. The days of showing up with a winsome smile and a good story are gone. So, unless it’s a “genuine” emergency, explains Nugent, a passport cannot be produced in just one day.

 

Hot property

An Irish passport is hot property. It is one of the most trusted, and therefore most valuable, in the world. It grants the privilege of visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 170 countries and territories, and often prompts a smile at national border controls where others provoke a snarl.

Yet every year, hundreds of Irish passports are returned to Molesworth Street – where, be warned, they are automatically cancelled – by the Garda following summer music festivals. Every weekend, significant numbers are reported lost after messy nights out and every year, a few J1 summers – and future travel plans – are wrecked when Irish students learn to their amazement that it’s a federal offence in the US to falsify a passport.

In fairness to us, unlike many European countries, we don’t have a national identity card and so, without a driving licence, a passport is the only official alternative.

The Department of Foreign Affairs is aware of this, and innovations being considered include a wallet-friendly card for use at land borders throughout Europe.

In the meantime, the potential for what Nugent calls “misuse” has been reduced with the new 34-page passport launched last September, which is embedded with lines from Yeats and Bunreacht na hÉireann, images of Ireland and at least 40 hidden security features too secret to mention. It’s hard to imagine how even the savviest of forgers could replicate it

I finally lay my hands on this wondrous document the afternoon before the wedding and my trusty suitcase and I totter onto a hastily booked flight to Bordeaux.

Cost (taxis, birth cert, passport, new flight, nerves, sleep): ruinous.

Wedding: magical.

Passport: priceless.

 

 

HAVE PASSPORT, WILL TRAVEL: SOME HELPFUL FACTS

  • Friday is the busiest day for the Passport Service.
  • Passport express is the easiest, quickest and cheapest (€89, compared with €95 at the public counter) way to apply for a passport. Turnaround is generally 10 working days.
  • Wait time for first- time applicants or those replacing lost or stolen passports can be up to 15 working days.
  • The pilot rapid renewal service facilitates the renewal of a passport for travel in fewer than three working days, by appointment and via Dublin office only.
  • It’s important to double-check requirements for cruises and when travelling to countries outside the EU and US (for example, Dubai requires six months’ validity).
  • You can register for a reminder service, which warns you three months before your passport expires.
  • Follow the Passport Office on Twitter @PassportIRL.
  • If your surname doesn’t match your children’s it is primarily a matter for immigration and border control authorities, where practices may differ depending on the part of the world – if in doubt, bring a copy of your child’s birth certificate.

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